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Alberta, Past and Present, Historical and Biographical
Vol 1 - Chapter XX
Irrigation and Water Conservation in Alberta

Lying south of the Red Deer River valley and between the Cypress Hills and the Rocky Mountains, is an expanse of territory relatively dry and suitable for irrigation. In its natural state the territory is admirably adapted for grazing and though the rainfall is sufficient in some years to produce splendid cereal crops, the recurrence of dry years is so frequent that irrigation is necessary to sustain successful agriculture.

In the early days of the province it was the great ranching district of the North West Territories, but owing to the demand for land following the construction of the C. P. R. in 1884 the grazing regulations whereby large areas were leased to stock growers were cancelled and the district opened for homesteading. The cancellation of the grazing regulations went into effect in 1893 and active settlement began. With settlement the movement for irrigation arose. The father of the movement may be said to have been Mr. William Pearce of Calgary, for several years Superintendent of Mines under the Department of the Interior.

The first irrigation ditch in the North West Territories was constructed by Mr. John Glenn who in 1875 squatted on what upon survey proved to be section 3, township 23, range 1, west 5th meridian. The ditch was constructed about 1878. The water was taken out of Fish Creek and an area of 15 to 20 acres irrigated. Next, two Americans who squatted on the Peigan Indian Reserve before it was surveyed. tapped Beaver Creek so as to convey water to a small portion of land whenever the creek overflowed. In 1889, water was taken out of Big Bear Creek which lies on the north slope of the Cypress Hills and enters into Crane Lake, by ditch, to create more hay lands. The next ditch constructed in the territory is supposed to have been in the year 1891 by Mr. John Quirk. The water was taken out of the north fork of Sheep Creek about section 5, township 20, range 4, west 5th. This was one of the most successful of the early ditches.

The first Irrigation Company chartered by Act of Parliament of Canada was organized in 1891 when the Macleod Irrigation Company received its charter. In 1892 the high River and Sheep Creek Irrigation Company was incorporated and in the same year the Alberta Railway and Coal Company received authority to construct irrigation works under their charter. In 1893 charters were granted to the Alberta Irrigation Company, the Calgary Hydraulic Company and the Calgary Irrigation Company. When the Northwest Irrigation Act was passed in 1894 the necessity for private charters for irrigation companies ceased.

For a time the Government of Canada did not favour irrigation for fear of creating a bad impression abroad respecting the North West Territories as a field for settlement. But the proportion of the North-West requiring irrigation was so small in comparison with the total area of the territories that such an apprehension was unwarrantable. The area comprises less than 50 million acres and is watered by nine large rivers besides many small tributaries. At the southwestern corner of the area is a large natural reservoir, the Waterton Lakes, available to augment the water supply for an immense district. In due course the Government found that irrigation lands had become a factor in attracting settlers to Southern Alberta as much as the lands in the so-called fertile belt north of the Red Deer River and in the valley of the North Saskatchewan.

A large portion of the territory had been granted to railways. The Canadian Pacific Railway Company held every odd-numbered section within the railway belt. That was a strip of land extending twenty-four miles on each side of the main line of the railway. One of the conditions of the grant of land to the C. P. R. by the contract of 1881 was that the land comprised in the railway belt should be fit for settlement. In order to make such lands lit for settlement, irrigation was necessary. The Company, however, could not irrigate its own lands without benefiting the even numbered sections. It therefore applied to Parliament to have the original contract altered respecting the lands in the railway belt and to have lands conveyed en bloc. The area surveyed comprised about 4,952,000 acres, of which 250,000 acres belonged to the Hudson's Bay Company by the deed of surrender of 1870 and 275,000 acres were school lands. Accordingly an Act was passed by the Dominion Parliament in 1894 authorizing the land subsidy in the railway belt from Medicine Hat to Crowfoot Crossing to be granted wholly or in part in solid tracts in such area as agreed upon between the Government and the Company. The Act did not affect the Hudson's Bay Company land unless the Hudson's Bay Company consented, nor did it affect school lands unless other public lands should be set apart in lieu thereof.

The next step in the development of irrigation was the passing of the Northwest Irrigation Act in 1894 (57-58 Victoria c. 30). By this Act the right to the use of all water for any purpose became vested in the Crown. Although it is called an Irrigation Act, it is more properly called a water users' act. Water for domestic, irrigation, industrial, municipal and other purposes as well as stream measurements, survey of storage reservoirs, inspection of works for the use of water, construction of drainage work and the granting of all licenses for the use of water, are administered under this Act. In order to determine the quantity of water in the streams and exercise intelligent control over its distribution, an elaborate system of topographical and hydrographic surveys were begun in 1894 under J. S. Dennis, C. E., and in May, 1895, an irrigation office was opened in Calgary.

For a time the survey work was carried on under the direct supervision of the Minister of the Interior, but in 1902 an arrangement was made with the government of the North West Territories whereby irrigation surveys were conducted through the Commissioner of Public Works for the North West Territories, and the report thereon made to the Department of the Interior. This arrangement terminated when the Province of Alberta was organized. Irrigation surveys have been carried on ever since with more or less energy. At the present time the Government and the big irrigation companies have a great fund of data on the possibilities of irrigation farming in the semi-arid districts.

For a number of years after the passing of the North West Irrigation Act, there were a great many small irrigation works undertaken to supply water to individual holdings, as well as several larger works designed to irrigate an extensive acreage. Among the latter the most important were the Calgary Irrigation Company 45,000 acres; Springbank Irrigation Canal west of Calgary 40,000 acres; R. A. Wallace ditch at High River 2,600 acres; Findley & McDougall ditch at High River, 2,600 acres; Robertson ditch at high River 1,265 acres; New Oxley Ranch ditch, Standoff, 1,850 acres; W. R. Hull ditch at Fish Creek, 1,300 acres. At the end of 1885 there were 112 ditches with a capacity of irrigating 79,270 acres in the province. In 1898 the number increased to 177 ditches irrigating 103,464 acres. By 1903 the number of canals and ditches was 163 with a mileage of 480 miles irrigating 623,362 acres.

The year 1901, 1902 and 1903 were vet years and interest in irrigation by small holders declined. From that time the development of irrigation schemes has been almost entirely carried on by the Canadian Pacific Railway Company and large corporations like the Alberta Railway and Irrigation Company and the Southern Alberta Land Company.

One of the first undertakings of the Government in connection with irrigation surveys, was to determine the feasibility of utilizing the waters of the larger streams for the irrigation of large tracts of land. Preliminary surveys were made in 1896 to locate a canal to convey the waters of the St. Mary River to the Lethbridge Plains. Similar surveys were made along the Bow River east of Calgary in the Canadian Pacific Railway Irrigation Block. The first of these Projects was developed by the Alberta Irrigation Company subsequently known as the Canadian Northwest Irrigation and later as the Alberta Railway and Irrigation Company and now controlled by the Canadian Pacific Railway Company. Authority for the construction of works was granted in 1898. The detailed surveys were carried out by Mr. George G. Anderson, C. E., who has been prominently identified with irrigation surveys in Alberta ever since and is now consulting engineer of the Alberta Government in connection with its policy of guarantee of irrigation bonds. The water was turned into the canal in September, 1900. As a result the towns of Magrath, Raymond and Stirling sprang into existence and settlers flocked into the district. In 1900 separate authorization was issued for the construction of works to utilize water from different sources of supply in this region. These works were merged in October, 1902, and amplified to utilize the water from the St. Mary and Milk rivers for the irrigation of the irrigable portion of 500,000 acres. A period of fifteen years was granted for the construction of the necessary works. Development proceeded as settlement warranted and by the end of 1915 the Company had constructed 200 miles of main and secondary canals, not including farm laterals. The capacity of the main canals was 1,000 second-feet; the cost of the works was approximately $1,368,000; the irrigable area approximately 130,000 acres, of which 75,000 were actually Put under irrigation. By 1918 practically the whole of the irrigable land was disposed of to settlers and the canal mileage increased to 230 miles. Further development depends upon obtaining increased water supply. The possibility of obtaining more water depends upon the issue of the International Joint Commission as to the division of the waters of the St. Mary and Milk rivers between the State of Montana and Southern Alberta.

The second of the large projects investigated by Government engineers, demonstrated the feasibility of utilizing the water from the Bow River for the irrigation of a large tract of land extending eastward from Calgary along the main line of the C. P. R. By the Canadian Pacific Railway charter of 1881 the Company was entitled to a grant of 25 million acres to be selected in alternate sections within the railway belt. The company had the right to reject any lands not fairly fit for settlement and had refused to accept as part of its grant, any lands in the region between Moose Jaw and the Rocky Mountains, that is, in the dry belt. Sections in lieu of the land rejected were made in other parts of the province, but at the time of the final settlement in 1903 there was a balance due to the Company of three million acres, which it agreed to take in the dry belt along the main line in Alberta, if it were allowed to take it en bloc. Accordingly the Act referred to previously in this Chapter was passed and the agreement confirmed. The company followed up the surveys conducted by the Government with a view to the construction of irrigation works, and applied for water rights. The block of land concerned was about 125 miles long and 50 miles wide tributary to the Bow River. For convenience of administration the Company divided this immense block into three sections, the western, the central and the eastern of approximately equal area.

The western section was developed first. Authority for the construction of the works was issued April 20, 1904, to be completed within a period of fifteen years. A canal was constructed that heads into the Bow River near Calgary and traverses a tract of 600,000 acres of which 223,000 acres are irrigable. The westerly limit of the irrigable land in this section is about ten miles east of Calgary and extends about 45 miles farther east. The main canal is 16 miles with secondary canals and laterals comprising a total length of 2,480 miles. The capacity of the main canal is 2,260 second-feet. The total cost of the works was about $4,827,000; the number of users 753 and the water rental 50 cents per irrigable acre. The works in this section were completed in 1911 and in August of that year the Company applied to the Government to make the inspection required by law.

Active settlement in this section began in 1908. Dissatisfaction on the part of some of the settlers induced the government to reclassify the land. The work of inspection began in 1913 and was completed in 1915. The net result of these surveys and reclassification was to reduce the irrigable area by 30 per cent. In conjunction with these investigations the government also reported on the climatic conditions, the temperature of the water in the irrigation canals and the suitability of the soil to stand irrigation. It was supposed the water was too cold to stimulate rapid normal growth, and that the soil was impregnated with alkali, which would rise to the surface when put under irrigation. The findings of the Government experts was most satisfactory. It was found the water in the ditch was warmer than rain water and that the occurrence of alkali was not frequent and was confined to small areas. It was established that irrigation may be as successfully pursued in Southern Alberta as anywhere else oil continent.

Before the completion of the works in the western section the Canadian Pacific Railway Company commenced the development of the eastern section. The first step was to raise the level of the Bow River to obtain a head for the main canal. This was done by the construction of an immense dam at a point in the Bow River known as "Horse Shoe Bend" about three miles south of the Town of Bassano. The works consist of a concrete spillway (lam of the Ambursen type, 720 feet long, to which is joined all embankment 780 feet long by which the level of the river is raised 50 feet. Water is delivered through five steel sluice gates into the main canal and thence by an elaborate system of sub-canals, reservoirs and flumes and is distributed throughout the irrigable tract. There are 2,500 miles of canals and a reservoir with a capacity of 186,000 acre-feet. The cost of these works was about 10 million dollars. The water was turned into the main canal April 21, 1914.

The third large project in the scheme of irrigation mapped out by the initial government survey, was the works constructed by the Southern Alberta Land Company. This was a company formed to take over a tract of land of 280,573 acres vest of Medicine Hat, sold in 1906 to the Robins Irrigation Company of London, England. A condition of the sale was that the company should irrigate at least 25 per cent of the land. The water is taken from the Bow River at a point thirty miles from Calgary (tp. 21, rge. 5). A diversion weir and head gates were constructed at this point in 1919. The level of the river was raised five feet. The canal from the river runs along the Blackfoot Reserve and southward into Snake Valley for a distance of 44 miles to a Reservoir known as "Lake McGregor"—so-called after J. D. McGregor, one of the principal shareholders of the Southern Alberta Land Company. The capacity of this Reservoir is 360,000 acre feet or sufficient to irrigate 180,000 acres. From Lake McGregor a canal runs easterly for 47 miles until it reaches the western boundary of the tract to be irrigated. From this point onward the canal is tapped by sub-canals. The main canal is carried across the Bow River by a syphon and fifteen miles farther east another reservoir has been provided and a canal system constructed for the land in the Suffield district. The scheme when completed will have water to supply 200,000 acres and is estimated to cost $10,000,000.

As already pointed out, irrigation by individuals was never successful and it was realized very early in the settlement of Southern Alberta, that irrigation works, if not undertaken by a strong corporation, would have to be undertaken as a municipal or community project. As far back as 1884, the year in which the North West Irrigation Act was passed by the Parliament of Canada, the North West Assembly passed the Irrigation Ordinance. This was a measure to enable settlers in any given area, which was capable of being irrigated, to form themselves into an irrigation district. The Ordinance was amended and consolidated in 1898 and again in 1915 and in 1920 by the Legislative Assembly of Alberta. The main features of the original legislation have been preserved in all these ordinances and Acts. An irrigation district is formed after a petition signed by a majority of the owners representing not less than half of the total area of the land affected and a vote is taken in which two-thirds of those voting favor formation of an irrigation district in the area concerned. The management is placed in the hands of a Board of Trustees who are constituted by the Act, a body corporate having power to make by-laws, construct works in accordance with the Dominion Irrigation Act, make assessments, raise loans and issue bonds for which the lands irrigated are a first security. By the Act of 1920 an Irrigation Council was created to advise the trustees of any district on the financial and engineering problems involved. But debentures must be approved by the Provincial Treasurer. The expenditure of the proceeds of the sales of debentures, contracts for the construction of irrigation works and rates of assessment must be approved by the Irrigation Council.

The first mutual or municipal undertaking under the North West District Irrigation Ordinance was projected in 1896 by the settlers of the Springback district, a tract of country west of Calgary lying between the Bow and the Elbow rivers. A canal 36 miles long was planned to convey sufficient water from the Elbow River to irrigate 21,000 acres. In addition it was proposed to construct another canal to utilize the waters of the Jumping Pound Creek to irrigate 20,000 acres more. Only about ten miles of this system was ever constructed. The completion of the scheme was prevented by disagreements among the residents and a succession of wet seasons which strengthened the opinion that irrigation was unnecessary. The wet years from 1900 to 1907 had a deterrent effect upon irrigation development, especially upon small schemes, but the return of a cycle of dry years beginning with 1909 and 1910 re-kindled a warm interest in the subject. rllhiS point illustrates the difficulties in promoting irrigation in a semi-arid country like the basin of the South Saskatchewan. In wet years the farmers see no need for irrigation and conclude the investment thereon is wasted. As soon as the dry years recur they swing to the opposite opinion. This was to be expected in the initial stages of settlement, but the collection and tabulation of rainfall records over a long series of years, gives the farmers reliable data upon which to base conclusions as to the value of irrigation. Since 1883 such records have been kept up by the Meteorological Service of Canada and they indicate a regular alternation of (Ivy with wet years.

In 1908 the Dominion Government established an Experimental Farm at Lethbridge in the semi-arid region. Half of the farm is irrigated while upon the other half, dry farming methods are resorted to. Accurate data kept for eleven years from 1908 to the end of 1918 has shown that the crops obtained from the irrigated portion of the farm were increased over the dry farming portion as follows: Wheat, 77 per cent; Oats, 53 per cent; Barley, 81 per cent; Potatoes, 105 per cent. These results have had a great influence upon the farmers of Southern Alberta and their attitude towards irrigation. Under dry farming methods it was found necessary to summer fallow to conserve the moisture of two years to get one crop. Thus twice the area of land was required. Dry farming also limited the farmer to grain crops and placed him at a disadvantage in growing live stock. By irrigating he could rotate his crops continuously and be assured of an abundant crop of timothy and alfalfa.

In 1910 the settlers in the vicinity of Iron Springs district north of the City of Lethbridge, petitioned the Department of the Interior for the construction of irrigation works to pump water from the Old Man River. The proposal was found impracticable. The Government, however, continued a survey of the district in 1913. This survey developed the fact that several detached tracts, comprising in all about 100,000 acres could be irrigated at a probable cost of from $18 to $20 per acre by diversion of water from the Old Man River. The reconnaissance of the area was completed in 1918. By that time the cost of labour and material had risen to such a peak that the cost of irrigation was estimated between $40 and $50 per acre. The district was organized into irrigation districts under the Alberta District Irrigation Act and a strong appeal was made to the Dominion and Provincial Governments to give financial guarantees for the construction of the necessary irrigation works. The Dominion Government refused to advance money directly but promised to find the money at a low rate of interest and loan the same to the Provincial Government if it desired to undertake the construction of the works.

In 1920 the Provincial Government undertook to guarantee bonds for the construction of irrigation works in this district in any two years of the debenture period. The trustees of the district were unable to sell the bonds with such a guarantee and finally the Alberta Government warranted a full guarantee of the irrigation bonds of this district in the Session of 1921. The success of the scheme is now assured and active development is in progress.

In 1915 the farmers between Chin Coulee and Taber created the Taber Irrigation District. It was the first district to be erected under the Alberta District Irrigation Act. They appealed to the Canadian Pacific Railway to make the surveys and construct the works. The Company agreed and the surveys were completed that season. Financial difficulties, however, arose because the district comprised some 8,000 acres of irrigable school lands which could not be pledged for the cost of irrigation. After protracted negotiations between the Alberta and Dominion Governments, an Act was passed by the Parliament of Canada whereby school lands in the Taber Irrigation district could be dealt with as if they were patented lands. Thereupon construction proceeded and the works were completed in 1920. The water is taken from the C. P. R. Reservoir at Chin Coulee. The cost was $16.00 per acre with a water rental of 50 cents per acre at the head gates.

Other projects are in development. The policy of the Alberta Government in guaranteeing irrigation bonds will ensure a considerable expansion in the area under irrigation. Several irrigation districts are formed, upon which construction will follow in due course. They are as follows: United Irrigation District, west of Cardston, comprising 25,000 acres; Sundial, Retlow and Lomond District, which is intended to irrigate 100,000 acres; South Macleod Irrigation District, already formed with an irrigable area of 50,000 acres; Lone Rock District, 8,000 acres; Medicine hat District, 15,000 acres; Lethbridge Southeastern district, 300,000 acres.

Summing up the actual result of 20 years of irrigation in Alberta we have the following result:

C. P. R. Lethbridge Extension, 130,000 acres, mileage of main canals, 230 miles, total cost, $2,000,000; C. P. R. Western section, 223,226 irrigable acres, mileage of canals, 1,600 miles, cost $4,500,000; C. P. U. Eastern section irrigable area, 440,000 acres, mileage of main canals, 2,500 miles, cost $10,000,000.

Canada Land and Irrigation Co., 220,640 acres irrigable, mileage of canals, 308 miles, cost, $6,000,000; smaller projects numbering 660, corn- prising 113,867 acres, including project of a half section or more, cost $1,000,000.


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